The strange homelessness of Liberal Conservatism

Richard Reeves has an article in the Guardian today on the need for the Liberal Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Conservative party. The article both previews and reflects the thinking behind Nick Clegg’s anniversary speech today.

The basic political strategy Reeves and Clegg1 advocate would make a fine strategy for a Conservative Prime Minister in the current economic climate. Clegg outlines a liberal moderation that repudiates the cultural and nationalist obsessions of the Tory right and the spendthriftness of the Labour left in favour of a sort of moderate, pragmatic, ‘what matters is what works’ modern Baldwinism.

I suspect this new tack represents the final fading of the hope Reeves and Clegg placed in David Cameron two years ago, when it seemed possible that the Tory leader’s own moderate instincts would be buttressed by his liberal coalition partners to create a renewed Liberal Conservatism.

Unfortunately for the Liberal Democrat leader, Cameron has turned out to be nothing of the sort.  Concerned more with managing dismay in his own party than by building a new majority beyond it, Cameron has presented himself as a tactical, party-managing, Prime Minister, trimming to the shifting currents of his party. 2

Perhaps, if the economy was growing, Cameron and Clegg might have been able to please more of the people more of the time through the strategic distribution of goodies. Unfortunately for us all, by defining the government on immediate deficit reduction, both Clegg and Cameron reduced the chances of growth, and the chance for distributional flexibility.3

That leaves Clegg rather exposed. Having endorsed so closely what he thought was the Cameron governing project, he finds instead that he has to differentiate himself from both the Prime Minister and the government the two men created together. Seen in that light, Clegg’s speech represents not so much a change of philosophy, but a loss of faith in the Prime Minister’s sharing of that philosophy.

Sadly for the deputy Prime Minister, his past decisions mean Clegg has become the most ill-suited advocate for liberal conservatism it is possible to imagine. Pace a previous Reeves article, there may be a Blair, or a Macmillan, or a Baldwin, shaped hole in British politics, but the one person who cannot possibly fill it is probably the one man who now truly wishes to occupy it.4

The coalition is led by a conservative and a liberal. One could have been a Liberal Conservative, but chose fearfully not to be. The other longs to be a Conservative Liberal but cannot persuade anyone to listen. As a consequence, Liberal Conservatism, which could, in theory dominate British politics, has no real political home.

This perhaps creates an opportunity for Labour, if it wants to make ‘One Nation’ more than a purely rhetorical theft from the long tradition of liberal conservatism.

  1. In that order, I think []
  2. You might say that Cameron is so afraid of being overthrown like Austen Chamberlain he refuses to govern in the manner of Baldwin. []
  3. I keep wondering what the fortunes of the government would look like if the Tories had annexed Cable’s economic policy in 2010 []
  4. I can claim a certain linguistic history to back up this argument: Reeves seems to have borrowed the term “Blair shaped hole” from Matthew D’Ancona in late 2007, who proposed David Cameron as a replacement filling. D’Ancona may have in turn been inspired by Martin Bright, who six months before had advised Brown to differentiate himself from Blair, saying that “A Brown-shaped peg will not plug a Blair-shaped hole.” It follows, that if Reeves says there today  ‘remains’ a Blair shaped hole, he is actually arguing that Cameron has now failed to fill that gap, just as Bright hoped Brown would not try to do []

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